Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Chronicle of Warriors in the Kill Zone: Restrepo

When Tim Hetherington ventured behind rebel lines while covering the Liberian civil war in 2003, an order for his execution was handed down by dictator Charles Taylor -- now on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity. Luckily, the British photojournalist was never captured but, once you’ve had that sort of fatwa on your head, why the heck not trek to the most treacherous part of Afghanistan to report on American troops under constant attack by the Taliban? That’s exactly what he did, along with New York City colleague Sebastian Junger, from June 2007 through August 2008. They went to the hazardous region on behalf of Vanity Fair, ABC News and their own documentary, Restrepo, a harrowing look at a U.S. military operation in the remote Korengal Valley.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Split Down the Middle: A History of Violence & Act of Violence

Unlike most critics, I wasn't terribly impressed with David Cronenberg's 2005 crime thriller A History of Violence which is based on the graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. It features Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, the owner of a diner in fictional Millbrook, Indiana, who gets thrust into the public spotlight after killing two criminals in self-defense. While initially perceived as a peaceful man married to a lawyer (Maria Bello), with a teenage son (Ashton Holmes) and daughter (Heidi Hayes), we soon discover that he's not the man he appears to be. The idea of the conflicted hero is nothing new to movies -- especially film noir -- but that isn't the problem with the movie. What doesn't work in A History of Violence is the credibility of the story itself.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Caretaker of a Nation's Memory: The Films of Patricio Guzmán

Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán has been chronicling his country's turbulent history for close to four decades now. Ever since he captured the 1973 coup led by Augusto Pinochet against Marxist President Salvador Allende in his stunning trilogy The Battle of Chile, Guzmán has made himself the caretaker of his land's national memory. At this year's Toronto International Film Festival, his latest film Nostalgia for the Light takes Guzmán to Chile's Atacama Desert to follow a group of dedicated astronomers who look to the cosmos for the origins of life, while nearby, a group of women search for the body parts of loved ones who "disappeared" during the Pinochet regime. (The movie premieres at TIFF on Monday September 13th at the new Bell Lightbox, with two subsequent screenings later in the week. Check the schedule for times.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Arms Wide Open: Youssou N'Dour Concert – Yonge-Dundas Square – September 6, 2008

I've attended many concerts in my life, some great, some pleasant and some god awful. Even with the great ones, rare is the concert where several years down the road I can still recall the event with such near perfect clarity that it is like it happened only yesterday. In fact, it has happened only once. Two years ago this week, the great Senegalese singer, Youssou N'Dour, gave a concert that, for me, is one of the finest, if not the finest, I've ever seen. In town for the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to introduce the documentary about himself, Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love (it has since opened in New York, but never here), he agreed to perform a free concert at the city's core, the Yonge-Dundas Square.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dining at the Table of Faith: The Holmes Brothers' Feed My Soul

Most gospel music recordings offer songs about testifying to one’s faith in God or seeking forgiveness for one’s sins. So it’s rare to hear religious songs that sometimes question one’s faith. For The Holmes Brothers, whose career has relied on faith-based music, it comes as something of a surprise to hear a few songs about doubt on their new album, Feed My Soul. But considering Wendell Holmes’s bout with cancer in 2008, one might question a lot of things including one’s faith.

For one, Wendell Holmes offers a sad story of loneliness during a time of need on his poignant song, “Fair Weather Friend.” Its subtle indictment of the American medical system speaks to the effects of having his faith shaken by his doctor (“No one would have guessed/That you’d leave me in this mess”). Describing this physician as a fair weather friend was probably the nicest way he could have put his angry response to the treatment proscribed. This song is immediately followed by the up-tempo and inspirational, "Put My Foot Down," where Wendell sings, “You’ve got to put your foot down/So you can hold your head up.” Now the song is really about his woman leaving him for another man, but I can’t help but extrapolate a deeper, more positive meaning for Wendell and his health.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Excerpt from Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism

Back in 1994, when I was just beginning a free-lance career, I had an idea for a book about American movies. That year, I'd seen Ivan Reitman's comedy Dave, starring Kevin Kline as a conservative President who falls into a coma and is replaced by a look-a-like (also played by Kline) so as not to send the public into a panic. Of course, the "new" President is more liberal and ultimately alters the policies of the true President. To my mind, it was as if we were watching George H. Bush morph into Bill Clinton in one movie. From that comedy, came the idea for Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

I wanted Reflections to examine how key American movies from the Kennedy era onward had soaked up the political and cultural ideals of the time they were made. By delving into the American experience (from Kennedy to Clinton), I thought the book could capture, through a number of films, how the dashed hopes of the sixties were reflected back in the resurgence of liberal idealism in the Clinton nineties. After drawing up an outline, I sent the proposal off to publishers who all sent it back saying that it would never sell. One Canadian publisher almost squeaked it through, but their marketing division headed them off at the pass. From there, I went on to co-write a book (with Critics at Large colleague and friend Susan Green) on the TV show, Law & Order, plus later do my own books about Frank Zappa, Randy Newman, the album Trout Mask Replica and The Beatles. All the while, I kept updating Reflections, seeing my idea change in the wake of Monica Lewinsky, Clinton's impeachment, the 2000 election of Bush, 9/11, and finally the rise of Barack Obama.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Off The Shelf: Marco Bellocchio's Good Morning, Night

Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio is, along with Francesco Rosi (Christ Stopped at Eboli, Three Brothers) and Ettore Scola (The Family, Unfair Competition), likely his country’s best living director. Vincere, his 2009 film, which opened commercially earlier this year in the U.S., is a powerful look at the early days of Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the loving and loyal wife he betrayed and later expunged from his personal (and the country’s) history. It's an upsetting tale of personal fascism and those Italian citizens, doctors, politicians and ordinary folk alike, who aided and abetted the dictator as he, in effect, erased the lives of Dalser and his son, Benito, whom he saw as inconvenient obstacles in his rapid rise to power.

Bellocchio has dipped into Italy’s turbulent history before but never more effectively than in his 2003 film Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, notte) , which centers on the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, former Prime Minister and leader of the country’s Christian Democrat party, by the Red Brigades terrorist group. (Bellocchio had also directed a 1995 documentary, Broken Dream (Sogni infranti), on the subject of Moro’s kidnapping and murder.)